The New Fashion Austerity: US Designers Tone It Down

Style moguls, whose fancy outfits aren't selling as well now, go the plain route

YOU could call it the fashion reformation of 1993.

Or penitential chic.

The idea is to make up for the excesses of the 1980s by looking remarkably unremarkable, uncommonly common, profoundly plain. To denounce the evils of vanity, artifice, affectation.

The leading exponent of this new Calvinistic chic is Calvin himself - Calvin Klein. The models in his fall show wore no makeup, no jewelry, no hosiery. They walked the runway slowly, somberly, setting the mood for a new kind of fashion ascetics.

Their clothes were in a refusal-of-color palette of black, carbon, indigo, gray, ink, iron, barley, stone, moss, and pewter. Their jackets and tunics and pants were lean and linear. Even the cashmere sweaters looked like they'd taken the vow of poverty, some of them pre-washed and pre-boiled.

Other leaders in this new wave of fashion denial are Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Yeohlee, Christian Francis Roth, and the country's two leading modernists, Geoffrey Beene and Zoran.

All of them practice the new austerity with dexterity, preferring black or neutral to colored or embellished, plain to fancy. Jackets are generally long and lean, many with self buttons. Vests are shrinking. White shirts are the new hair shirt, always worn untucked. Tunics are important, often replacing jackets, and worn over both long and short skirts as well as pants. Sweaters are loose, oversized, and totally asexual.

Even Todd Oldham, who became famous with his happy, colorful, decorative clothes, now offers a more somber palette, including some stark black dresses devoid of ornamentation.

Another aspect of this moment in fashion history, where designers seem caught between denial of the recent past and fear of the immediate future, is the appearance of religious symbols such as the cross. It is definitely the most popular jewelry item of the season.

Richard Tyler crosses his models both front and back. Donna Karan strings six crosses across her models, bandolier style. Maria Snyder and Louis dell'Olio of Anne Klein also show their clothes hanging with cross necklaces.

Fashion's hymn to the ecclesiastical is most obvious in the many cassock-like dresses in the market, especially at Ralph Lauren, Yeohlee, Cynthia Rowley, Oscar de la Renta, and Tyler.

Like priests' cassocks, most are long and many close in self buttons. Some are worn with rosary-like necklaces. By day, they are in nondescript gabardine fabrics. By night, they come out in jewel-toned velvets.

Clerics appear in padre hats at Calvin Klein, preacher coats at Lauren, and nun-like evening gowns in black and white satin at Yeohlee.

Geoffrey Beene features latter-day Rasputins in detachable hoods. Zoran also likes hoods, especially for evening and particularly in black organza.

A lot of the monk-like coats and jackets are loosely belted in leather thongs, as in the braided versions at Michael Kors.

In the ecumenical spirit of acceptance and inclusion, every length goes. The long skirts that had seemed so inevitable a few months ago are now part of a length story that ranges from the very short skirts at Christian Francis Roth to the very long at Karan and Klein.

SOME of the city's most famous designers, such as Isaac Mizrahi and Bill Blass are showing skirts above the knees as well as below. And for those women not about to give up their tights, Blass's endorsement of this look, which he pairs with riding boots, may even seem heaven-sent.

So what's with all this monk business? This sudden reverence for severity and austerity?

If today's fashion is as accurate a barometer of the times as it usually is, the new redemptive mood, the salvation-at-hand mindset is as much a reaction to sagging sales of designer merchandise as it is some sort of miraculous conversion of repentant designers.

Sack cloth and ashes are the exact opposite of the glitz and gold that hasn't been selling. Loose, covered clothing is the exact opposite of the tight, sexy clothes already hanging in a lot of closets.

This season also marks the profoundly antifashion triumph of the street and its lessons of relevancy, comfort, and thrift. Most of the clothes shown during the New York shows score high on relevancy and comfort.

But thrift is something else. No one on Seventh Avenue has announced any price reductions, so could it be that all this tony tone-down was simply a way for designers to cut costs? Plain, it should be noted, is a lot less costly to produce than fancy.

The question now remains, will ascetic, no matter how aesthetic, sell?

Will the cleric make it off the fashion pulpit of the runway and onto the street? Will it pay off at retail?

Designers fervently hope so.

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